A Kaiser Elementary School parent urges the Oakland Unified School board not to close the school at its meeting on Aug. 28, 2019. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

At a time when officials are looking to reopen schools, but with more distance between students, a group of health experts, parents, teachers and community members is asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order that would halt any permanent school closings during the pandemic.

The group supports stopping all permanent closures until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed or the threat of spreading the virus is greatly diminished through immunity or effective treatments.

Although most schools are doing distance learning through the end of the school year, six districts — from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California — are slated to close or merge at least 16 schools when the school year ends.

Those districts include Pasadena Unified and Oceanside Unified in Southern California; and the Evergreen Elementary, Ravenswood Elementary, San Rafael City Elementary and Oakland Unified districts in the Bay Area.

The 16 schools were identified in an analysis of the state’s 30 most densely populated counties by Advancement Project California — a racial justice organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento that focuses on research and advocacy.

“This is a statewide issue affecting thousands of students, unfortunately impacting students of color most of all,” said Chris Ringewald, director of research and data analysis for the organization. “Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately experiencing school closures and mergers at the same time these communities are disproportionately suffering from COVID-19.”

He noted that his organization only focused on the 30 most populous counties, so its findings do not include closures or mergers that may be happening in less-populated areas. He also said his organization did not look at why the schools were closed.

Oakland Unified’s school closure plans

Oakland Unified, in Alameda County, plans to close three schools and merge them with other campuses starting in the fall. The district says it needs the revenue to close its budget gaps and it doesn’t need more than 80 schools to serve its roughly 37,000 students.

But the group that sent the letter to the governor, which attracted the support of health experts from UC Berkeley, UC Davis and other institutions, argues against assigning more students in fewer schools at a time when Newsom and state and county public health officials are calling for more space between students.

In addition, dozens of more schools in at least 10 districts including Oakland Unified are slated to share their campuses with charter schools in an arrangement known as “co-location,” in which charter schools lease classrooms and often use common areas such as playgrounds while district students are in their classes. This practice would put more students — who often travel from outside the immediate neighborhood — onto one campus, potentially increasing the risk that infections would pass from one student to another and spread throughout the city, the group argues.

“Even though children may not become very ill, they do become infected, and children are very often the source of respiratory infections for their parents, grandparents and younger siblings,” said Dr. Arthur Reingold, director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Division in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “Any plan that could increase crowding or increase the number of students in a room goes exactly in the wrong direction we’re trying to implement. It seems to be ill-advised to consolidate schools at this moment, from the point of view of public health. If anything, we need to increase spacing when students are at school and not put more children into each classroom.”

Reingold is one of 11 public health experts and more than 90 parents, teachers and community members who signed a letter sent to Newsom on May 5 asking that he halt permanent school closures, along with school mergers and charter school co-locations during the pandemic.

Communities of color

“COVID-19 is already disproportionately affecting communities of color — the same communities that are most impacted by mergers, closures and co-locations,” the letter said. “The schools that children of color attend must be made as safe as possible so as to not further endanger communities most at risk from COVID-19.”

“Maybe the decisions were warranted,” said Ringewald, referring to district decisions to shut down school buildings they determined were unneeded. “But at the system level, systemwide, closures and mergers are disproportionately affecting black and Latinx communities and that’s not right. So, something in our system needs to change.”

Advancement Project California contributed to a research paper released with the letter that argues that more students placed closer together in classrooms and schools will increasingly put communities of majority black and brown people at risk.

Ringewald unveiled his organization’s findings along with other members of the group supporting their position during a virtual press conference Tuesday.

Oakland Unified has no plans to halt its school closures. District spokesman John Sasaki said “there is no one even enrolled” at Kaiser Elementary, one of the schools being closed, since families have already pre-enrolled in other schools for next year. Oakland officials say consolidating schools will cut down on overhead costs and enable the district to streamline resources on fewer sites, which they hope will result in improved student academic achievement.

The district plans to put portable classrooms on the Sankofa Academy campus to help accommodate the students and teachers who are expected to move from Kaiser to the merged campus in the fall. It recently held a virtual community meeting to determine alternative uses for the Kaiser campus, during which a majority of participants said they wanted it to remain a school. The board could decide to keep it for district use or go through a community process that could designate it as surplus property that could be sold or leased to generate revenues for the cash-strapped district.

“If we need space because of state mandates,” Sasaki said, “we could use the campus for something, but it won’t be as a school.”

And he said s state law known as Proposition 39 requires districts to offer space to charter schools. The board-approved co-location of a charter school on the Brookfield Elementary campus this fall is part of that process, he said.

Declining enrollment

Officials in most of the other districts mentioned in the report also closed schools due to low enrollment and the need to cut costs. The Oceanside district in San Diego County decided to close one school and consolidate students on another campus due to a sink hole that would require expensive repairs, according to news reports.

Emy Flores, superintendent of the Evergreen Elementary School District in San Jose, said her district went through an extensive community engagement process before deciding to close two schools due to declining enrollment and to help close a $12 million deficit. She said one of the schools is in a low-income area and one is not, but both were recommended by a committee based on community consensus.

She said that the district has lost so many students that some schools have empty wings and classrooms, so it would not make sense to keep the schools open in the fall. However, she said the need for social distancing will likely force the district to stagger attendance on its campuses when they reopen. Although elementary school class sizes are capped at 24 students, Flores said she doesn’t think the district could put 6 feet of space between each student unless they limit classes to 10 to 12 students at a time.

“I’m not anticipating bringing 100% of the kids back each day,” she said. “There are going to be less students at our campuses at any one time because there’s no way we could bring them all back at the same time.”

Christina Perino, spokeswoman for the San Rafael City Elementary School District, said the school board decided to close an elementary school next year due to declining enrollment and that there was no community opposition because the remaining neighborhood schools are able to accommodate district students. She said it would not be possible to reopen the school in the fall because a community group is already planning to use the facility for early childhood education.

“We believe the best option is to move forward with our agreement so they can provide high-quality, affordable early child care and education to families in our community during these very challenging times,” Perino said.

The advocacy group’s research paper argues that closing schools is not saving money in Oakland Unified, based on costs associated with planning meetings for mergers and facilities upgrades. Dan Siegel, an attorney with the group, said Newsom has the legal authority to order a pause on permanent school closures.

Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Newsom has repeatedly said he expects schools to remain closed through the end of the school year, but he recently asserted that schools should consider opening in late July or early August to help students who may be falling behind in learning to get caught up.

The advocates also sent a copy of their letter and report to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. A California Department of Education spokeswoman confirmed that officials there had received it, but maintained “all aspects of school operations remain at the local level.” The department, said spokeswoman Cynthia Butler, is focused on “supporting schools in ways that help them successfully navigate a distance learning environment, bridging the digital divide that is a barrier to access for numerous students and finding the answers needed to safely re-open in the weeks and months ahead.”

Virtual learning

Districts are scrambling to continue educating students virtually, but a lack of access to digital devices and the internet in some communities is making it difficult for all students to learn.

Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union, told EdSource that Oakland Unified will need to negotiate modifications planned when schools reopen and that safety must come first.

“In the interest of the health and safety of our students, a moratorium on school closures and charter co-locations is necessary,” he said. “The conditions of having a crowded classroom and lack of space do not afford being able to implement the necessary physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The teachers’ union went on a seven-day strike last year that ended when it won pay raises and smaller class sizes for some groups, among other items. But the union has also fought permanent school closures and charter co-locations. It is now pushing for a nurse in every school, Brown said, and is demanding masks, hand sanitizer, soap and clean facilities with hot running water.

While it is in the process of creating a master facilities use plan, Oakland Unified is also in the midst of a five-year process to close, merge, or expand schools based on a “Community of Schools” plan that found the district could close or consolidate up to 24 schools and still serve its students. The district has faced pressure from the state to close schools as part of budget cuts to avoid deficit spending in the next three years.

Last year, the district school board voted to close two schools and merge them with two others next fall, over the objections of many from the community. A group of parents and teachers called Oaklandnotforsale led protests against the closure of Kaiser Elementary in north Oakland and other schools. Many members of that group spearheaded the research paper and letter to the governor.

Before the pandemic forced all district schools to temporarily close in mid-March, the district was expected to announce a new list of schools to permanently close, merge or expand in 2021-22, which the board expected to vote on this month. But district staff delayed announcing the schools after the COVID-19 required learning to shift online.

There has been no decision to permanently delay the next round of planned closures, however. Board member Shanthi Gonzales said in a Thursday message to the community that she expects the board to take up the issue in August.

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.